Again, a nice guy finishes last

Now that the Turner Gill Era on Mount Oread has officially come to a close, Phog.net's Jim Williamson takes a few minutes to reflect on the man - not just the coach - who aspired to great things at Kansas, but ultimately fell short of those lofty goals.

I learned Sunday afternoon that Turner Gill had been relieved of his duties as KU's head football coach with a two-word text from my colleague, Aaron Cedeño: "It's official."

We knew Saturday, after the Missouri game, that an announcement about Gill's future in Lawrence would come Sunday. We were also pretty certain that the news wouldn't be good for Gill – although, with $6 million coming his way from Kansas in the next 90 days, I have a feeling he'll get over it.

Fans faulted Turner Gill for a lot of things. He wasn't passionate enough. He didn't yell enough. He wasn't enough of a hard-ass. He was sappy. He was preachy. He was too old-fashioned.

Turner Gill was probably guilty of all those charges, on some level. But if you'd ever had the chance to have lunch with him, you'd understand better where he was coming from.

I had a couple of occasions to have lunch with and near the coach after news conferences. Once he sat down, he really didn't talk football much, and more often than not, he'd practically interview the people at the table with him. He'd ask where you were from. He'd ask about your family. He'd ask young writers from the Kansan what they planned to do after graduation. When you answered, he looked you in the eye and listened. No wonder he was a good recruiter. He made you feel like he really wanted to hear what you had to say.

He expressed his respect and caring for his players on a regular basis. Maybe, had he won more often, this would have been acceptable to the Jayhawk fan base. But he went just 5-19 in his two seasons – 1-16 in the Big 12 – so his caring was perceived as weakness. He wasn't nearly Mangino-y enough for many fans.

I won't ever fault him for showing some heart and wanting to praise his players for even the smallest success rather than throw them under the nearest bus for missing a block. I'm not stereotyping when I say a lot of his players come from backgrounds where a kind word from a positive male role model is something new and different.

His players reflected that caring and respect right back to their coach. If Gill is corny and old-fashioned in any way, it's because he believes the job of helping his players become good men is as important as teaching them to throw and catch a football. Unfortunately, at this level, the throwing and catching and the wins that result from them trumps all else.

Gill's biggest downfall was his choice of coordinators.

Gill was the first KU coach I know of who wanted to run his program like a CEO runs a corporation: he would close on recruits, and he would administer the overall "big picture" of his program. The day-to-day operations would be left to his coordinators – his COOs – Carl Torbush and Chuck Long.

Torbush was forced to resign last May 31st after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Cornerbacks coach Vic Shealy threw himself on the grenade of trying to improve one of the nation's worst defenses from 2010. His willingness to do that earned my respect and admiration.

Shealy never really seemed at ease as KU defensive coordinator, though. Maybe it was a job he didn't want. Maybe he didn't feel prepared for it, stepping in like he did at the 11th hour. He still spoke frankly with the media, though, answering every question and trying to figure out how to put his players in positions to be successful.

Of course, no one can ever, ever "blame" Gill for hiring a guy who developed cancer. Life happens. The issue becomes, very few people outside the state of Kansas know the story, and even fewer care. The college football world is pretty jaded and unforgiving like that. People want to see wins, not hear heart-tugging stories.

Gill can, however, be blamed for hiring and retaining offensive coordinator Chuck Long. Long has never experienced coaching success when he hasn't had access to a Heisman finalist (Josh Heupel) or winner (Jason White) at quarterback. Even then, his results earned him the nickname Chuck "Third and" Long from disgruntled Sooner fans. Long left OU one step ahead of an angry mob to become head coach at San Diego State, where he wracked up a record of 9-27. Long's play-calling at Kansas was predictable at best, just plain bad at worst.

Both Shealy and Long coached disorganized, confused, undisciplined units. As late as the Baylor game a couple of weeks ago, players were still running on and off the field with 12 seconds left on the play clock, as if they were unsure of who was supposed to be on the field for a given play. It was enough to make me long for a bar in the press box. But then, who can blame the players for being baffled? They'd only been running these plays since spring ball, right?

The idea of retaining Gill and firing the coordinators entered my mind for about eight seconds but that never works. It's just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. But I still wonder what life would have been like if Gill had had access to an offensive coordinator like Ed Warriner, a coach who tended to scheme you to a victory rather than to a loss.

Baseball legend Leo Durocher said, "Nice guys finish last." I was openly hopeful that Turner Gill would be the exception to that rule. I still am. If he wants to work, I'd bet he'll find a good assistant gig someplace soon. He's a good man who made some bad decisions.

For the good of the Kansas football program, a change had to be made. It's just a bummer that that change meant such a good man with a lot to offer his players had to be let go.


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